From the second-floor balcony at the Motel 6, Malyuun Mahamed saw her husband emerge from a car as a free man for the first time in nearly two years.
She ran down the stairs and into the parking lot, smiling wide with arms outstretched. There, Abdikadir Mohamed hugged her tightly, buried his head in her neck and gave her a quick kiss.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” she told him. “Is this real?”
Their reunion in Elizabeth on Saturday came after an agonizing wait for him to secure a visa after they married — and then for him to fight for his release after he was detained at JFK International Airport in the tense days after a court reinstated a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries.
Last week, an immigration judge freed Mohamed, and he walked out of the Elizabeth Detention Center, anxious to join his wife and two young daughters.
Mohamed, a native of Somalia, is one of thousands of foreign-born men and women who have been detained for alleged immigration violations or held while seeking asylum. Lawyers said Mohamed was locked up unjustly after a 15-hour interview marred by the lack of a translator, misunderstandings and false assumptions.
For Mohamed, who fell seriously ill during his detention, the release was a lifeline.
“I was worried about my family, my kids and my wife, me and everything else. I’m really happy to be out and to start my life,” he said.
“I’m feeling like somebody who came back to life again.”
Mohamed married Malyuun, also a Somali native, in June 2016 in South Africa, where he had lived since 2010. After filing paperwork and doing an interview at the U.S. consulate, he was granted an immigration visa on Nov. 29, 2017, before President Donald Trump signed a travel ban.
At JFK Airport, Mohamed had his travel documents stamped for admission and was told he was free to go. He was on his way to catch a connecting flight to Columbus, Ohio, where his wife lives, but he was stopped by a roving officer from the Tactical Terrorism Response Team, a division of Customs and Border Protection. The officer asked him, “Are you from Mogadishu?” referring to the Somali capital.
During questioning, he was denied a translator and officers appeared to misunderstand when he said he was from the Ogaden clan, an ethnic group that spans multiple countries, his attorneys said. Officers suggested he was affiliated with the Ogaden separatist group in Ethiopia – a country where Mohamed has never traveled.
Ultimately, Judge Mirlande Tadal deemed he had a strong asylum case and that there was no reason to bar him from joining his family in the United States, said Tarek Ismail, an attorney with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project at CUNY, which also represented Mohamed.
Ismail said he jumped in a car on Wednesday after Mohamed got the call that he’d be released.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “We have been fighting tooth and nail on this case for 20 months, and Abdi himself has been fighting even harder. His patience is something we’ve all marveled at.”
Mohamed celebrated his first post-prison meal of Yemeni food and strawberry ice cream, which is his favorite. Last week, he also visited students at the CUNY Law School who supported him.
While celebrating his case, Ismail said he remained concerned for other families because “the government can simply make a baseless allegation against someone and detain him… based on racist tropes against Muslims,” he said.
While in detention, Mohamed became severely ill because of what his lawyers say was medical neglect. Over an eight-month period, Mohamed said he complained of chest pain, but was only given pain medication and antacids. He was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized for 10 days.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an earlier statement that it does not comment on detainee medical issues due to privacy regulations.
Mayluun, 26, a U.S. citizen, traveled several times from Ohio to visit him and stayed at the Motel 6 during her visits. She hopes she never has to return.
“This is the last day for me at a motel in New Jersey,” she said. “I was disappointed every time I left the motel without him. Now, I am happy.”
On Saturday, the couple drove back to Ohio, where Mohamed reunited with his daughters. Suheila, 2, shared a Sunday breakfast of eggs and pancakes with him, calling him daddy, smiling and eager to show him around. Suheyba, 1, cried when she saw her father, still an unfamiliar face.
Now, they are looking to rent a home. Mohamed wants to find work so he can support his family and send money to his family back in Somalia. Malyuun, who works in a factory, said she hopes to go back to school once her husband gets settled to get a degree in dental hygiene.
Mohamed said he feels badly about what happened to him because he did nothing wrong and came to the United States legally. But he’s grateful for those who helped him.
“The people who help me and anyone who pray for me when I was in detention, I like to tell all of them I’m thankful and I pray for them,” he said.
Mohamed said he’s ready to start his life in the United States with his family.
“I want to start work and try to help my family and build my future,” he said.